Sir Richard Branson last night denied a report in a leaked US embassy cable that he bankrolled a diplomatic effort to sweeten the exit of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe.
A confidential memo released by Wikileaks says that in July 2007, Branson was due to hold a secret meeting with South Africa's former president Nelson Mandela and other senior African statesmen to discuss persuading President Mugabe, now 87, to step down.
The initiative is said in the cable to have been brokered by Zimbabwean politician Jonathan Moyo, but never came to fruition. Last night Sir Richard Branson's office acknowledged that he had been approached by Mr Moyo to discuss ''ways to broker a peaceful reconciliation in Zimbabwe'' but no further action was taken.
Sir Richard Branson owns a luxury game lodge and a chain of gyms in South Africa and takes a strong interest in the Southern African region's politics. Last year, on the sidelines of the United Nations poverty summit in New York, he launched Enterprise Zimbabwe - an fund aimed at attracting western investors scared off by the political instability in Zimbabwe.
The cable, dated 10 July 2007 and classified by the US ambassador Eric Bost to South Africa, states: "UK businessman Richard Branson is bankrolling an African 'Elders' initiative to convince Zimbabwean President Mugabe to step down. The 'Elders' plan to meet secretly in Johannesburg July 17-18 with Branson to discuss their initiative."
The cable says the planned July 2007 meeting was to include Mandela, former United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan, as well as the former presidents of Namibia, Zambia, Ghana, Mozambique, Kenya and Botswana. Former US president Jimmy Carter was also mentioned as a possible participant.
The memo identifies Mr Moyo, a controversial figure in Zimbabwean politics, as "working with Branson on the plan". Mr Moyo's career has seen him flip-flop in and out of favour with the ruling Zimbabwean African National Union - Patriotic Front. At the moment, he is back in favour, acting regularly in an information role.
The cable says: "Moyo reached out to Branson, who owns Virgin Atlantic airlines as well as a game lodge and chain of gyms in South Africa, in early June to suggest the involvement of the former African leaders. Branson agreed to fund the initiative, including Moyo's travel and technical assistance."
The cable goes into detail about Moyo's plan, adding that he proposed the Elders visit Mugabe and urge him to support a new constitution, giving him the chance to select an executive prime minister in exchange for standing down.
Moyo is even quoted as suggesting ''a script'' for the elders' encounter with the Zimbabwean president, including stressing that ''they respect him'' and want to protect his ''proud legacy''.
Asked last night by The Independent for his views on the leaked cable, Dr Moyo, who is a member of the Zanu-PF Politburo, initially said he could not comment on information ''given to the US ambassador by a third party'' he named as the International Crisis Group.
Later however, in a lengthy phone call, Dr Moyo admitted having met Sir Richard Branson in a check-in queue at O.R Tambo airport in Johannesburg in April 2007. ''We chatted for about an hour and a half. He told me that he was setting up a group of Elders with Peter Gabriel. When he learnt that I was an MP he was interested in my views. Mr Branson is a good man. We exchanged phone numbers and emails.''
Dr Moyo denied initiating a meeting with Mr Branson and claimed that the Virgin millionnaire had phoned him as a follow-up to the airport encounter. ''He asked my advice on who to appoint to his panel of Elders. I told him that the names he was proposing, including Desmond Tutu, were non-starters in Zimbabwe and I gave him more suitable names, including the former presidents of Namibia, Zambia, Ghana and Mozambique.''
However the cable appears to be informed by conjecture. The Elders - a group of prominent figures and former statesmen and women who receive financial support from Branson - were launched on 18 July, 2007, a week after the cable was written. Apart from Nelson Mandela, they do not include the former African presidents named as putative participants in the July 2007 meeting. The Elders did not begin working on the Zimbabwean crisis until the following year.